Stockholm (Financial Times: How To Spend It 10/00)

 The Swedish capital has added a sense of glamour and fun to its historic attractions. Gordon F Sander spends a weekend immersed in its bloody past and sizzling present.

The blue-veined Swedish capital has always been a bit like its most famous modern daughter, Greta Garbo: breathtakingly beautiful, but rather steely, and not nearly as fun as some of its Baltic neigbours. Check again. Flush from its success as European City of Culture 1998, Stockholm has undergone a dramatic change. Now, alongside its time-honoured attractions — Venetian-style canals, elegant parks, sweeping quayside boulevards and a magisterial, spire-studded skyline — the city has an infectious confidence and a new energy. Today’s Stockholm is sizzling with an unprecedented variety of choices in fine dining, hotels, nightlife and shopping.

A suitably charming and well-situated bar for your luxurious weekend conquest of Stockholm is the First Hotel Reisen, a medium-sized luxury hotel located on the edge of Gamela Stan, or old town. There’s a decidedly cosy and nautical feeling about the Reisen, which features a unique grotto-like pool where you can start your day with a refreshing swim, and an old-fashioned piano bar for nocturnal unwinding.

For somkething grander, glide through the revolving doors of the Grand Hotel and into a lobby that recalls the opening frames of the celebrated 1932 film of that name, in which the star-crossed guests – including Garbo, of course – arrived in breathless succession before repairing to their respective rooms and fates.

Built in 1874, the imposing, 310-room Grand is one of the great survivors from the golden era of grand hotels. During the second world war, when Sweden was neutral and Stockholm was a veritable spies’ next, the elegant Cadier Bar was a favourite rendezvous for both Allied and Axis agents. Ever since 1901, all Nobel laureates have been housed here and, in keeping with local custom, they awake to a bedroom serenade by singing children.

The service accorded to non-prize winners tends to be less demonstrative, if not cool. No matter. Everyone should stay at the Grand at least once. Each gloriously posh room boasts its own distinctive, baroque decor. And the view is truly to die for. Be sure to ask for a room with a balcony facing the royal palace. It’s enough to make your ex fall in love with you again. (Mine nearly did.)

The Berns Hotel just around the corner, a small, luxe facility favoured by visiting pop stars, offers something more contemporary. It includes the revamped, Terence Conrar-designed bar and restaurant. If you want a memorable time, book the Clock Suite, a vast room beneath the hotel’s clock that looks out onto Berzelli Park. The suite also comes equipped with its own community-sized sauna. Tom Jones likes to wind down here when he’s in town.

The completely renovated Birger Jarl is Stockholm’s first designer hotel. This sleek and intriguing hotel, located on a quiet street slightly away from the city centre, contains signature rooms by some of Sweden’s top designers.

Having settled in, you’d be advised to devote a good day to ambling — and this is a city made for ambling — around Gamla Stan, the small, history-laden island in the centre of the city that is the heart of medieval, and royal, Stockholm. Start at the gracefully arched Norrbro bridge over Strommen. You’ll recognize it by the fishermen casting their lines here. First stop is the great Riksdagshuset, or parliament. Unless you wish to hear a riveting debate in Swedish, take one of the weekend tours in English, which will reveal more about the workings of Swedish social democracy.

To take to the cobbled streets of the Gamla Stan is to plunge into Sweden’s resplendent — and surprisingly sanguinary — imperial past. Until the Swedish royal family upped sticks in 1981 for the leafier surroundings of Drottningholm, 11 km outside town, Gamla Stan’s 600-room Kungliga Slottet, or royal palace, was the world’s largest inhabited palace. Now it is a massive museum complex that deserves an awed but selective visit.

Stop to admire the royal chapel and its exquisitely preserved rococo interior, as well as the lustrous silver throne Queen Kristina (1644-54) left behind when she fled to Rome. Revel in the royal apartments and galleries and their baroque interiors and riches dating from the great days of the Swedish empire. And don’t forget to peek into Livrustkammen, the local armoury, which houses the armour worn by Gustavus Adolphus when he and his horse were felled by the Germans at Lutzen in 1632, as well as the costume worn by his hapless descendent, Gustav III, when he was murdered at the opera ball in 1792.

Emerging from the Palace, make for Storkyrkan. Dating from the late 12th century, this venerable church is Stockholm’s oldest edifice, and perhaps most sacred. Most Swedish kings were crowned here. The remodelled baroque interior is a wonder. Look for the remarkable sculptural ensemble, “St George and the Dragon”, a 15th century masterpiece which symbolises Sweden’s struggle to break free from Denmark. One of the bloody milestones of that struggle, the Stockholm bloodbath, took place near by at the Stortorget, the main square, when 80 rebellious Swedish noblemen were publicly beheaded in 1520.

Last stop on your Gamla Stan walk-about is the 17th century Riddarhuset, or house of nobility. Perhaps Stockholm’s most beautiful building, its interior is distinguished by the 2,325 coats of arms of Sweden’s noble families.

Reward yourself for your conquest of old Stockholm, and begin your culinary tour of Stockholm new, by didng at the delighful, slightly mad Pontus In The Green House. Here the brilliant young chef, Pontus Frithof, serves up some of the most inspired, and eccentric, cuisine in Sweden. Start with urval av asiastiska delikatesser och caviar beluga (Asia-inspired assiette with beluga caviar) followed by grillad alt kokt piggvar på bit edskaldjursmmousselinesas (grilled or steamed turbot with shellfish mousseline sauce).

Alternatively, you might try the famed Operakallarens Mtsal, better known as the Opera Cellar. It’s hard not to gawk at the intricately-worked rococo interior of this fabled restaurant. Stefano Catenacci, the inventive head chef, has added his own Italian sizzle to the once dour menu. Try his pancettastekta havskaftor med auberginkaviar gron sparris och mild sojasas (langoustines fried with Italian ham served with aubergine caviar and green asparagus). And don’t be surprised if you espy the current royal couple dining in the King’s Room as you leave.

Assuming that you still have the energy, cap off your day with a drink at the glamouros, cavernous Café Opera, still the most popular nightclub with the suit-and-tie crowd. At the weekend the café becomes a disco after midnight.

The focus of the Stockhom nightlife is around Stureplan, where you’ll find queues for the super-trendy Spy Bar. Or slink around the corner to the jazzy lobby bar of the Lydmar Hotel, the headquarters of Stockholm’s booming music industry. Don’t make the common mistake of perching yourself at the front desk and asking for a drink; the bar is on the other side. Chill out afterwards at my favourite neighborhood café, the cosy, all-night Café Birger.

On your second day in Stockholm, hop aboard one of the boats bound for Djurgarden, Stockholm’s park island and fun centre, and cruise over to the famed Vasamuseet. In 1628, the top-heavy “Vasa”, flagship and pride of the Swedish navy, overturned and sank within minutes of launching. In 1961 the man-of-war, then in 14,000 pieces, was raised, painstakingly put together, and opened to the astonished public in the form of a seven-level, open-plan museum. Forty years later, it still astonishes.

If it’s sunny, treat yourself to a Swedish-style alfresco lunch at nearby Wardhuset Ulla Windblah. Order the biff Rydberg (diced and fried fillet of beef served with fried potatoes and onions and egg yolk). You can’t get much more Swedish than that. Next, take an hour or two to promenade around the Skansen open air museum. A pastoral world unto itself, the Skansen contains a collection of 150 houses from all over Sweden as well as a small but delightful zoo.

Finally, take the boat back via Skeppsholmen, a small leafy island that is a sort of miniature of Stockholm. It’s also the site of the marvellous Moderna Museet (modern museum), in a new building designed by Rafael Moneo. Reopened in 1998, the Modern Museet’s collection includes works by Leger, Matisse, Braque, Klee, Picasso and Modigliani, as well as fine works by Swedish artists such as Isaac Grünewald and Bror Horth.

Save your third day for shopping. Dive into the world of modern Swedish fashion at Filippa K’s boutique on Grev Turegtatan, the city’s new fashion street. Paul and Friends, next door, offers a selection of international brands such as Miu Miu and Helmut Lang, as well as its own lines including svelte knitwear. Or sample the latest in fashion at NK, the famed Stockholm department store, in its NK Trend section.

Ordning & Reda in Sturegallerian offers snappy Swedish stationary and diverse doodads for home and office. If you’re in the market for something more Solid, check out Nordiska Galleriet, on Nybroplan, Stockholm’s most effective furniture shop, Buy a piece of Swedish calm at Carl Malmsten, the eponymous flagship shop of the acclaimed cabinet-maker, on Strandvagen. Or you might find that classic chair you’ve been searching for at Svenskt Tenn, the legendary furniture store nearby.

Keep walking down Strandvagen, Stockholm’s most elegant boulevard, and you’ll end up at Villa Källhagen, one of Sweden’s great restaurants. Try the kryddsetkt abkbrost med svampdumpling (fried breast of duck with mushroom dumpling). Or grab a taxi and head out to Edsbacka Krog, a lavish country inn 15 kilometres outside town that happens to be Sweden’s only two-star restaurant. It is the stated ambition of the flamboyant head chef, Christer Lingstrom, to be the first man to serve dinner on the moon. After you’ve tucked into his grillad palgrimsmussla med paisternackspuré och den röd paprikås (grilled scallop served with purée of parsnip and red pepper sauce), followed by his one-off hallonsymfoni (symphony of raspberries), you’ll agree that he has a shot. Most probably, too, you’ll be ruminating upon reputations: if Stockholm doesn’t deserve its chilly notoriety, how warm must the real Garbo have been?